Title image: Residents of the Vhembe district in Limpopo protesting against the proposed MMSEZ that will threaten people, nature and the climate.


By Dr Neil Overy

Despite the ever-deepening climate emergency, many of Africa’s political elite are giddily embracing fossil fuels as a means by which to overcome the continent’s energy shortages and entrenched levels of poverty.

For example, the head of the Petroleum Authority of Uganda, Ernest Rubondo, stated last year that ‘Ugandans need to get excited and prepare for what is coming ahead’ as the country begins to exploit its oil reserves. Meanwhile in Mozambique, President Filipe Nyusi describes the $100 billion that Mozambique will allegedly make out of its gas reserves as a ‘blessing’ which will bring in a ‘new era’ of ‘peace, stability, security and (sic) promotion of development … for the benefit of the people’. In Kenya, Energy and Petroleum Cabinet Secretary David Chirchir, asserts that the exploitation of oil will be a ‘game changer’ for ordinary Kenyans. Closer to home, after gas was discovered in South African waters, the then Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe, asserted that the discovery would ensure that the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality would be ‘a thing of the past’. Similar assertions are being made in Senegal, Mauritania, Kenya, and Tanzania.

This determination to exploit fossil fuels featured strongly in African inputs to the COP27 climate talks in Egypt in November 2022. Interestingly, this rush for fossil fuels in Africa has been accompanied by a call for climate justice. African leaders have asserted that it is Africa’s right to exploit its fossil fuels so that it can ‘develop’ in the same way that the ‘developed world’ exploited fossil fuels to enable its ‘development’. As the President of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, argued at COP27, is it fair that Africa should be ‘penalised’ for now wanting to exploit its natural resources?

Adesina’s question is valid. Africa is not historically responsible for the vast majority of climate change inducing GHG emissions in the atmosphere and is responsible for only 4% of global GHG emissions today. Thus, an argument can be made that Africa should be allowed to exploit its fossil fuels.  Pressure not to do so coming from the ‘developed world’, the United Nations, or global financial institutions, can be understood as an injustice. This point has been made forcibly by African leaders. The President of Senegal, Macky Sall, stated in late 2021 that ‘blocking financing for the gas sector would add a great economic injustice to the climatic injustice Africa is already suffering’. The then President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, was more forthright in 2022 stating, ‘western development has unleashed climate catastrophe on my continent. Now, the rich countries’ green policies dictate that Africans should remain poor for the greater good’. In South Africa, this argument has been made by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, who accuses opponents of fossil fuel exploitation of ‘oppressing’ economic development.

There are serious problems with these pro-fossil fuel arguments. Evidence unambiguously shows that countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have lower levels of inclusive economic development and growth – a phenomenon known as the ‘resource curse’. Nigeria is the classic example. Despite trillions of dollars having been made in oil exports since 1960, Nigeria’s Human Development Index value for 2021 was 0.535, ranking it 163 out of 191 countries and territories. Angola, despite is massive oil and mineral riches, is ranked 148.

Earthlife Africa’s Jabulani Mtsweni, leading a protest against the investment of fossil fuel and related industries.

While a number of factors contribute to this ‘resource curse’, it primarily occurs because of weak governance arrangements in African countries which result in poor revenue collection, and creates opportunities for corruption, which sees revenues redirected away from the state into private hands, often among those linked to governing parties. Ordinary African people also see little benefit because the extraction, processing, and selling of resources is not controlled by African companies. Unfair terms of trade and the continuing historic injustices of colonialism mean that it is foreign companies that exploit Africa’s natural resources by controlling value-chains. These companies are, therefore, able to monopolise the profits that can be extracted throughout entire value-chains. Thus, while some revenue flows to corrupt elites in Africa, the vast majority flows overseas.

This reality is well known to Africa’s current political elite which is promoting fossil fuels. Do these African leaders believe that they can do things differently, that they can break the ‘resource curse’ and ensure that real benefits accrue for their citizens? Or do political elites linked to governing parties simply view the rush for fossil fuels as an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens? While there is little evidence to support the first proposition, there is, sadly, already evidence to suggest that networks of corrupt politicians, with the support of corrupt business leaders in Africa and Europe, see the exploitation of fossil fuels as a means by which to accrue personal wealth. For example, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been syphoned out of the Mozambiquan state by corrupt officials involved in the so-called ‘hidden debt scandal’ within its gas sector.

One way by which this rush to oil and gas can be potentially thwarted would be for ‘developed countries’ to take their climate debt to Africa seriously and pay for Africa to address its energy woes by financing its transition to renewable energy. Here, however, we see more political failure. Despite ‘developed’ countries agreeing in 2009 to commit at least $100 billion a year in funds by 2020 to support ‘developing’ countries with climate funds to help them transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to the impacts of climate change, this target has yet to be met. Research shows that in 2020, ‘developed’ countries committed just $83.3 billion, 75% of which is in the form of loans. Let’s not also forget that several ‘developed’ countries are also increasing their exploration of fossil fuels. For example, the British government recently announced that it will issue ‘hundreds’ of new licenses to exploit fossil fuels in British waters.

This failure to pay its climate debt (let alone reparations for colonial crimes) is all the more shocking given that the International Energy Agency argued two years ago that no more new fossil fuels can be exploited if we hope to avoid the worst of climate change.

It is this hypocrisy on the part of the ‘developed’ world that creates the perfect opportunity for African leaders to cry foul and insist on Africa’s right to exploit fossil fuels. Given the severity of the climate crisis, it is high time that political elites in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing world’ stopped acting in their own and fossil fuel corporations’ interests and, for once, put the interests of all of us first.

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian: https://mg.co.za/thought-leader/opinion/2023-11-27-hypocrisy-of-developed-world-enables-african-leaders-to-insist-on-right-to-exploit-fossil-fuels/

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